The First Presbyterian Church of Dexter
Text: John 2:13-22
The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling, cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and you will raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered the that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.
The temple in Jerusalem was a massive complex… Under Herod the Great the temple was renovated and expanded in size starting in 20 BCE. There were multiple courtyards, a specific place for gentiles, grand gates that served as imposing entrances, and of course the inner temple that housed the sacred history and holy artifacts of the Jewish people. By the time Jesus arrived at the temple in this passage from the Gospel According to John, it wasn’t am Jesus’ first visit to the temple in Jerusalem. Looking back we can remember that Jesus had gone to the temple before with Mary and Joseph as a young child. I think it would be safe to say that the temple had a different vibe, a different look, from when Jesus had first laid eyes on it when he was a child. But the physical changes to the temple aren’t what have Jesus in a bad mood… There’s something underneath the exterior changes that sits at the heart of what has gone wrong… There is something at the heart of the people’s worship of God that has Jesus in a corrective mood. And the thing is, is that this story is not unique to the Jewish people, but still rings true for us today.
It would be interesting if Jesus were to come into our houses of worship today and he offered his input on what he thought we were doing right and what we could maybe improve. Though I don’t think that Jesus would have found the houses of worship we have built for ourselves to be very interesting. Jesus preached in the small synagogue in his hometown and went to see the great temple that had been constructed in Jerusalem. The physical houses of worship, the place where people went to be with God, weren’t all that important in the grand scheme of things. But like I said earlier, something has Jesus in a bad mood…
What would Jesus find if we let him into our church today? What would Jesus find if we let him into our homes? Would Jesus find that we have created spaces that encourage people to build relationships with one another and with God or would Jesus find that we have become more concerned about how we look, think, and present ourselves and not have put as much thought into how we sincerely worship God? Maybe this question is a little disconnected from the reality in which we live. Because let’s face it, it’s hard to see ourselves as people who lived during the time of Jesus and it’s almost impossible to relate to the culture to which Jesus was accustomed to. But we still have places of worship… We still have places where we come together in order to worship God communally… And we still wrestle with the same questions and struggles that the people of Israel faced during their walk of life and faith.
What was going on at the temple that day that made Jesus so upset? The passage tells us that Jesus saw animals in temple… But animals were common, because they were used in rituals regarding atonement and the forgiveness of sins. The passage tells us that there were also money changers who were present… I mean someone had to sell the animals and make sure that no one was stealing them, certainly this is not what could have provoked Jesus. So if we take away these two things what’s left? I think we find that when you strip away these external elements we find that Jesus was most concerned with the people’s act of worship. The animals and the money changers were no longer there so people could present sacrifices, but they were there as idols, objects of worship and showmanship that had supplemented worship of God with the worship of the things that are of this world.
We don’t always do it on purpose. We don’t always go out of our way to supplement our worship of God with things that make us feel more secure as human beings. Sometimes life just happens… Sometimes the pitfalls and snares back us into a corner where we feel as though we have no way out… However, there have been times where our worship of God has not always been done for the right reasons… And that is what has Jesus all riled up…
The people who frequented the temple were buying animals for the sake of making sure there offering was the best, the most expensive, so that they could put on some kind of show before those who were watching. They wanted others to know their status, their positions in society, and so they turned something sacred into something profane, something unholy. We are currently inside of a church, which makes it hard to see where we have gone off track, but I’m sure that if we spent enough time we could discover the ways in which we have not lived full heartedly into the mission and identity that God has given us. Uncovering these things means that we have to confront them, which means that there is a lot of hard work involved and it doesn’t always pay off in the end.
This past weekend I had the opportunity to work with a one hundred and twenty confirmands and their chaperones. We talked about what faith and church looked like after confirmation and how our journey of faith doesn’t stop at the moment we are confirmed by the church. It is an ongoing process, one that is always being formed and reformed. While I enjoyed my time working with young people, I also enjoyed the time that I got to spend with their chaperones as well. After each session we had a small group and I got to hear stories of what was going on in other churches, and what was working for them and what wasn’t working… During one of the small groups, a man named Denny said something that was both amusing and true…
The church that Denny came from had a good deal of money… They were located in a suburban neighborhood and they were known as the tall steeple church. After listening to some of the other people Denny chimed by saying, “You know I’m really sick and tired of some of the things my church does… All they do is ‘BS’ all day talking about where they are going to put flowers in the flower garden or how they’re going to decorate the sanctuary… I look out around our church and I see people in need and here we are talking about what flowers people think would be appropriate for worship!”
Denny wasn’t wrong… And to be fair, he used the words that I would have wanted to use if I wasn’t leading the confirmation retreat for them. There are so many things that keep us from really coming to God as we are, without the trapping and other ornaments we think we need. We all have something that could use a little cleaning out… We all have something that we hold onto, but it keeps us from offering what we have to Jesus, because we fear that others will judge what we have to offer. Jesus doesn’t care about what we offer… Jesus cares more about why we offer what we have… The gifts and talents we bring as individuals can be vast, or they can be like the widow who offered only a single copper coin and praised the Lord from the bottom of her heart… That is what matters to God.
This is one of those passages that can make people feel uncomfortable… I mean, we don’t really see Jesus expressing such passion all that often. And I think this passage can make people feel uncomfortable, because there is some element of judgement and some level of critique of the things that we do. And I think that’s okay… Because if we never felt challenged by our faith, then there are a lot of other questions we should be asking ourselves, and I don’t think Jesus wants us to be static either.
Jesus drives out the animals and the money changers from the temple and tells them that if they destroyed the temple, he would rebuild it again in three days… The people must have thought that Jesus was crazy. How could one person rebuild a whole temple complex in three days when it took hundreds if not thousands of people to complete the original over the course of multiple decades? Of course we know that Jesus wasn’t talking about the temple… Because like I said before, Jesus doesn’t necessarily care about the buildings we worship in as much as he cares about why we worship. We come together just as we are each and every week to lift our praise, songs of joy and lament, and prayers to God.
So this is the challenge for us today… Jesus asks if we are willing to let go of the things we know don’t benefit our coming together to worship God. When we look around us, what might those things be? Even if we aren’t able to identify them Jesus is still waiting there with open arms that offer grace and forgiveness. The temple that Christ rebuilt was one that welcomes in everyone, regardless of their race, socioeconomic status, or gender. It’s a marvelous weaving together of everyone who was created in the image of God. And in the passage for today we find that Jesus wants to preserve and advance that vision of what the Kingdom of God will be. So let us take part in the marvelous things that Christ calls us to do… And may we come together to worship in both word and deed offering what we have just as we are. Amen.